Canelons for St Stephen’s Day, December 26th, in Catalonia

Well, if the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia can tweet my 2012 piece on this “traditional” dish (albeit with the caveat that retweets are not endorsements),  I reckon I can re-post it.

Let me say this is not just a shaggy dog story about a particular region of Spain.  So many elements of the story—

  • the spread of French high cuisine by non-French cooks,
  • the tangled relationship between feminism and women in the kitchen,
  • the extent to which the Italians can lay claim to various pasta dishes
  • the industrialization of pasta,
  • the recent invention of national dishes,
  • the difference that just one person can make

 

—crop up time and again in food history.

December 26th is St. Stephen’s Day, the day that Catalans celebrate by eating canelones (cannelloni).  When I was living there for a few months, I delved into the origin of this custom.

St Stephen's Day dish in Catalonia: canelons

Catalan canelons

Stage One.  Amazement at the ubiquity of canelones year round in Catalonia, and skepticism about the standard story that they were brought by Italian Swiss immigrants in the late eighteenth century.

Stage Two. Meeting Jeff Koehler, a fine writer, traveler, photographer and cook, who knows a lot about Catalan food and kicking around with him the broader implications of canelons in Catalonia.

Stage Three.  Constructing a more plausible story about the early twentieth century appearance of canelons in Catalonia, part of an increase in wheat pasta that occurred in many parts of the world.

A hundred years ago, Barcelona was booming, textiles factories were spinning, the well-to-do had a social round of balls, country excursions, racing. Women shopped for new furniture, fancy clothes, fine china.  Everyone socialized in restaurants and cafés that served French dinners and té anglaise. Many were owned by migrants from the north of the Italian peninsula–the Italian-speaking Swiss Ticino, the part that had for a time belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia that traded with Genoa and Catalonia.

For a really fancy meal, they went to the Maison Dorée in Plaza de Cataluña owned by the brothers Pompidor.  And for the absolutely latest dish, too time-consuming and complicated to make at home, they called ahead and ordered canelons.  The restaurant set to making the pasta, stuffing it, and coating it with béchamel.  Béchamel shouted that you were understood food, just as today an informed choice of olive oil labels you as understanding food.

And here the story branches.  The first branch has to do with ladies learning to cook canelons.

Ladies who wanted to cook this kind of food (or more likely teach their cook to make it) attended the near-professional classes offered from 1924 to 1931 in the feminist Institut i Biblioteca Popular de Cultura de la Dona. We may not think of cooking classes and feminism as a natural pair, but to the founder of the Institut, Francesca Bonnemaison, they were, like libraries, part and parcel of improving women’s culture and competence.

The classes were taught by a professional chef, Joseph Rondissoni, an Italian Swiss, who during his career was executive for various hotels, opened a gourmet shop, and edited the journal Menage, very influential in Spain, designed to improve household management, particularly cooking.  Rondissoni was a disciple of Escoffier who prided himself on sending out well-trained chefs around the world.  In Ma Cuisine (1934) Escoffier offers a recipe for canneloni stuffed with chicken, foie gras, game, or other meat (though he coats them with a demi-glace sauce with tomato).

And when Rondissoni published his Culinaria in 1945 following the end of the Spanish Civil War, recipes for “canalones” and other pasta had a prominent place in an early section of the book.

Culinaria is still in print.  The 6th edition was prefaced by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, one of the best writers on gastronomy not just in Spanish but in any language (though look him up–he was much, much more).

It is true that a recipe for canelones Rossini had been published earlier by one of the founders of modern Catalan cuisine, Ignasi Doménech. Following the custom of associating the Italian singer and gourmet with truffles, he suggested stuffing them with a mixture of chicken livers, bacon, pork loin, brains, grated cheese, tomato sauce, truffles, breadcrumbs, sherry, and egg yolks. The distinguished historian of Spanish cuisine, Néstor Luján, credits Domenech with the popularity of canelons, an attribution that fits nicely with recent Catalan nationalism.

I tend instead to credit Rondissoni, just because he did so much to shape Catalan and Spanish cooking in the 1940s and 1950s.  But it would need more research to resolve the issue.

The second branch of the story concerns the pasta.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the great explosion of factory-made dried pasta, canelons were imported from a French firm called  La Poule (the chicken), 16 to a box. It tells you something about how prestigious (and presumably expensive they were) that they were separated by pink tissue paper.

Canelones el Pavo

Ramon Flo, who made industrial pasta in Barcelona from 1911 on, saw an opportunity.  After various efforts, he found ways to make these cylinders, now flattened out, selling them under the copycat brand name El Pavo (the turkey) from 1914.

By the 1920s, canelons had become a modish dish for well-to-do Barcelona families to serve on December 26th, St Stephen’s Day. They displaced a rice dish made with the leftovers of the Christmas Day soup. Nestor Luján remembers that his family used El Pavo.

Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, as Spain began to recover from the Civil War, canelons became the common Catalan dish for St Stephen’s Day. And now they are omnipresent in Catalonia.  They appear as the highest flights of fancy in famous destination restaurants, in humble take out places, besides being obligatory for St Stephen’s Day, made from El Pavo pasta, on sale in any little grocery.

____________

Thanks to Jeff Koehler who xeroxed for me the introduction to 100 Recetas de Canelons (1990) by the famous Catalan gastronome and historian Néstor Luján from which part, but by no means all, of this story is taken.

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8 thoughts on “Canelons for St Stephen’s Day, December 26th, in Catalonia

  1. Gary Gillman

    Canoli I think is a custard-filled tube from Sicily, and all these seem variations on the idea of a wheat-based hollow roll filled with sweet or savoury. Loukanika the Greek sausage seems to have a counterpart in many places around the basin under a similar name, extending to linguica in Portugal I’d think. Or pizza, pita, pide (the oval-shaped Turkish pizza-like dish). Alwways hard to know what accounts for the spread and surely it varies for specific cases but the explanations offered for the origin of the Catalan dish are intriguing.

    Gary

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Gary, years ago Johan Mathieson who had a great food history newsletter wrote a long piece on the various sausages, tracing them all to the original Roman sausage. And yes, tracing the path of various foodstuffs is a fascinating exercise. I personally prefer to try to trace the spread of whole cuisines in which particular foodstuffs or dishes are embedded. But sometimes the ingredient or dish is all that remains of the cuisine and is a clue to that cuisine. Lots of this in my Cuisine and Empire.

      Reply
  2. Victor

    Thanks a lot for this article, Rachel! It is very well-documented and fun to read. Catalans consider canelons as the comfort food prepared by mom, grandma, or an aunt –never men. Now more and more people buy them from a take-away store.

    I tried Italian cannelloni and they are so different. The Catalan ones don’t have stewed tomato sauce, but béchamel. For a long time the most popular recipe was known as canelones Rossini, because the composer used to eat them in Barcelona, or at least this is what Catalans like to think. According to Jaume Fábrega, the first restaurant that served them was Chez Justin (XIX century), the first French restaurant in Spain whose chef was Italian. To me, what it is interesting is that this was an haut-cuisine dish that became popular in the XX century, and acquired this symbolism of people with humble economies recycling the food that was left from the day before (from the leftover meat used to make the Christmas rich broth) to create a festive dish.

    For those who plan to visit Barcelona, I would recommend them to try the canelons filled with fish, or the ones made with spinach, raisins and pine nuts. The ones filled with meat are considered to be the authentic (whatever this means), but I find them too heavy to eat when I go back home in the summer.

    Thank you very much again for your articles. They are most interesting.

    I have started reading ‘Cuisine and Empire’. I am having a lot of fun. It is a pity I don’t have more time to spend enjoying your book, but I am managing to read a few pages every day.

    Thank you very much for writing it,

    Víctor

    PS: Just a little spelling correction. It is not Vásquez Montalbán, but Vázquez Montalbán. Not a big deal at all.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Victor, Thanks for this long and helpful comment. To me too one of the most interesting aspects of this story is how a high cuisine dish becomes regarded as a traditional and thrifty dish. I think that happens all the time in food history.

      I also think that the story strongly suggests that Italians cannot claim that cannelloni are peculiarly theirs. So far as I can see at least when they become popular they owe more to widespread experiments with different shapes of dried industrialized pasta.

      Corrected the Montalbán spelling. thanks for that.

      Reply
  3. Victor Llacuna

    Thanks, Rachel. The misspelling is with Vásquez. It should be Vázquez (with ‘z’). But, again, it is not a big deal. Happy New Year!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Whoops, made this and some other alterations this morning and then did not save them. Easy to do because saving grinds on for several seconds. Now done.

      Reply
  4. NiCk Trachet

    Prospero aňo nuevo, Rachel.

    Some thoughts:

    First the link with Rossini ( a composer, not a singer!).
    Gioacchino Rossini retired from active music productions (and composing) in 1832, he didn’t travel anymore after that, so it is very unlikely he was in Barcelona during the period you think canneloni appeared (Rossini died 1868). More than being linked to truffels, Rossini is famous for his recipes with foie gras such as “tournedos Rossini” (which I think -by the way- to be originally a tradition of the Jews who couldn’t use butter with their meat). Hence the chicken livers in the catalan recipe, a poor substitute for the real thing.

    Then the canneloni. Artusi (1891) does not mention them. So they weren’t much around in Italy at the time he set the fundements of Italian cuisine.

    As a child, I loved canneloni at one of the first Italian restaurants in Brussels (talking 1960ies here). There they were made with ready made tubes of industrial pasta. But in Italy the canneloni I encountered were generally made by rolling up a sheet of lasagne pasta in the shape of a tube. And lasagna (lasanum, lasana) is traced back to Rome in Antiquity. So canneloni might be very very old?

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Nick, that the link with Rossini is a red herring. Attaching famous names to dishes at the time was the equivalent of today’s list of farms where food has been sourced: a way of establishing credentials.

      And I also agree about canneloni not being much in evidence in Italy. I think if someone did the research they would find there was a huge surge in varieties of pasta across various parts of Europe following the mechanical extrusion press and the drying room. Retrospectively dried pasta has become tied to Italian nationalism.

      And on antiquity, Islamic cookery too has dough rolled into tubes, generally fried though. Our history of all this is still very primitive.

      Interesting idea about Jewish use of foie gras as a substitute for butter.

      Reply

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